Last week I went to two talks on my campus. One was by Richard Stallman, one of the founders of the GNU project and thus a co-inventor of Linux. The other was by the Nobel-prize winning economist Amartya Sen.
Both talks were sparsely attended considering the fame of the speaker. At the Stallman talk there were old Gandalfian hackers and a few graduate students from our Forensic Computing master’s program. There were faculty who were experts on cyber law in attendance, moving their heads in silent agreement or disagreement at this or that remark. In the auditorium where Sen spoke nearly half the seats were empty, but the faculty were well-represented. Attending with my friend from African Studies, I sat next to a group from the English department, not far from a contingent of philosophers. I also saw a few historians and psychologists, and a student of mine from the economics department.
At neither talk were there many mathematicians. I found this a little disappointing, but not surprising. For myself, the talks were challenging and more or less pleasant, but the things discussed were completely irrelevant to my research in mathematical logic. The same was true for other people in my department, and so I can understand why they might choose to spend their time doing other things.
I observed, a little enviously, that this was not at all true for my colleagues. The remarks Stallman made about the role of software in a free society, and his views on the morally permissible uses of intellectual property, have relevance to work in criminal justice, economics, political science, philosophy and other fields. He talked about current and possibly future legal conflicts between institutions and corporations with real significance to society and our technological mode of life.
Amartya Sen spoke on the nature of a just society, and as he spoke my friend and neighbor made furious notes, remarking on the material under his breath. Some comments about the Rawlsian theory of justice and a recent declaration of food as a human right in India generated particular excitement. These were interesting observations and developments, which might in one form or another be incorporated into his future research.
To a weak but detectable extent at both talks, I felt like the campus with all its faculty was being unified by engagement in a single discourse. Unfortunately it was a discourse in which mathematics, and in fact all the sciences, seemed without a place. The things discussed and the forms of their discussion were disorganized, rhetorical and imprecise. It was the kind of thing that many of us privately dismiss as “humanities nonsense,” in which the personality of the speaker figures largely and the cogency of what is being said is dubious.
But even though it is possible to console ourselves with a little chauvinism and a possibly well-earned feeling of self-righteousness, the lack of contact between math and other disciplines is still frustrating. If nothing else, it would make life more interesting if the mathematics department were more actively and naturally involved with other groups. As time goes on this difference seems to be becoming only more hopeless and pronounced. We can and do make our livings teaching mathematical techniques from the 17th century to college students pursuing other majors. But the real living core of what we do is invisible. As is only natural, most people from other realms make no effort to seek it out or understand it. Generally, we make no attempt to exposit or explain it. What can we do besides watch this growing rift with increasing unease?
What is the traditional fate of the individual who bases life on a relationship with the transcendental rather than the social? I believe that they tend to be burnt up or shot full of arrows, in proportion to how vocally they express their views. At many colleges I feel the mathematics department has particularly neglected needs, and what could be less surprising given our state of isolation?